I will agree that this game is hard to perfectly balance, esp. for a smaller team.
Pathfinder is inherently unbalanced. The rules they literally based their whole design around are–I will charitably say–“imperfect.” Certain classes with certain gear and Feats are absolute monsters at the sorts of challenges parties typically face. The same class with different gear or a different set of Feats might be woefully gimped in an almost hilarious fashion. But the same Feats that fuck them over would turn another unusual race/class combo into its own form of a nightmare.
A significant part of the “joy” of Pathfinder (for those that find any amount of joy in it at all) versus any other PnP RPG is delving deep into these miles-long lists of Feats and Spells and Traits and Disadvantages and Sub-Races and Class-Archetypes and Alternate Class Bonuses and Magical Items and Animal Companions in search of the perfect combination to break the game all in their own special way.
Ergo, and I genuinely do believe this, @tomchick, to adapt the game without making every effort to enable that part of the experience would be to fundamentally miss the point. Especially when letting a computer handle all the number-crunching and Feat-interaction checking and randomization and adding and subtracting carves out a significant part of the game that isn’t very much fun for anyone but really passionate accountants and actuaries.
The downside there is that the game devs cannot reasonably predict what any given party is bringing to the table, especially as the game marches on and companions are found and discarded and mercs are hired and designed and levels are accrued and gear is bought and sold. The ever-branching possibility space of even this noticeably limited implementation of the Pathfinder ruleset is mind-boggling.
And remember, a character might be woefully under-equipped for challenge A but absurdly over-prepared for challenge B. Hell, this is one of the great horrors of balancing the game ad-hoc as a live GM: how do you sufficiently challenge the +5 Adamantine Full Plated Two-Handed Fighter with a +5 Keen Speed Bastard Sword who is routinely swinging for 400+ damage per strike (and can do multiple a turn) while sitting behind 40 AC and a few hundred HP. . . without throwing out a monster that instantaneously murders the Wizard if he accidentally wanders in front of it with his 25 AC and 150 HP before remembering to, I dunno, Stop Time itself, or whatever.
So, thing is, live, in play, you’re keeping track of character abilities live. You’re giving your players advice. You’ve probably got at least one or two rules-lawyers in the group who edge the party away from woefully suboptimal choices. You’re parceling out loot the characters beg for when they do real good. You’re fudging rolls that are just absolute bullshit (cuz the system produces a lot of bullshit rolls). You’re designing encounters–half a dozen or more enemies, all of whom with full spell lists and gear lists and feat lists, plus the terrain their in, and the existing magical effects there, and the unusual laws of physics of the plane it’s located in, and the surrounding area for a few miles out for the really big effects–by hand, each week, to challenge the party specifically set before you, drawing from those same miles-long lists of powers and spells and builds and classes and races and monsters.
I genuinely do not think that anything less than a AAA team budget could possibly hope to try to implement the Pathfinder ruleset, give players the freedom to use it as they see fit, and design an adaptive AI capable of rejiggering entire campaign arcs on the fly to be appropriately challenging for the kinds of parties hundreds of thousands of potential players will throw at them like so many monkeys on so many typewriters, banging out some crazed variant of Shakespeare wherein Romeo casts Sleep on himself and Juliet rolls 37 on her Knowledge (Arcana) check to recognize the result and the two of them don’t wind up suiciding into oblivion and instead live a long and happy life as dual immortal wizards in the gleaming crystalline castle in an entire universe they designed by hand for fun one afternoon.
For better or for worse, designing a game that genuinely makes an effort to implement Pathfinder 1E with as much accuracy as possible (and let’s face it, the backers of this title more or less demanded precisely that, and it is, in fact, more or less the game’s entire appeal as compared to something like Pillars of Eternity or Torment, is going to leave you in a position where the best-fit possible balance of almost any encounter is something along the lines of “Oh fuck I dunno let’s just try three bears and pray.” Pray–pray the game devs didn’t look to Pathfinder’s own encounter design principles, centered on the woefully inadequate Challenge Rating system that tells you that a Bristle Boar that most Barbarians can one-shot is functionally equivalent to the Shadow, a monster that routinely TPKs full parties of well-prepared PCs, to achieve their balance, cuz that shit is fundamentally wack, yo.
Now, to another side of this argument, I do think that the designers didn’t do their jobs insofar as they tuned the gameplay to be conquered by tabletop-obsessives with years of system mastery under their belts who’ve had two dozen hilariously broken builds bubbling under the surface of their geeky subconsciouses ever since the game was first announced.
Therefore, the “Normal” difficulty–much less the “accurate to game rules as written” difficulty that exists halfway between Normal and Challenging–has some wildly incongruous difficulty swings even off of the otherwise fairly reasonable “Fuck it let’s shoot for X and pray” difficulty level the devs designed the core game around, to the point that people who didn’t even accidentally gimp their parties into absolute shit are occasionally gonna get nudged toward encounters that a fairly average party designed by a newb to the system will just be utterly unable to face down.
I do think that those bewildering blips are going to get smoothed out over the next month or two as non-Pathfinder-obsessed everyday buyers start dropping comments and reviews and the devs break out of their Early Access bubble of neckbearded hyper munchkins. At that point, Normal will be. . . fine.
Unless you decide to build a Fighter with 8 STR, 8 DEX, 8 CON, 18 INT, 18 WIS, and 14 CHA and Stealthy as your first level Feat, of course.
Then you’re just back to being fucked by the unfortunate truth that Owlbear were not equipped to design the world’s first General Purpose Artificial Intelligence and therefore set us on the path toward Terminator.